The Sweet Taste of Success
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
The year was 2011, and Natalie Evans and Jennifer Walls — two transplants to Syracuse — had been friends for a couple of years. Natalie had moved to the area to study architecture at Syracuse University, and found a job here after graduation. Soon after, Jennifer moved to town, to work for the same firm.
The two bonded over a mutual interest in travel, exploration and — after they started bringing in desserts for an office morale boost — a love of baking.
They would frequent the farmers market on weekends with Natalie’s now-husband, perusing the baked goods. Looking at everything from the eyes of two designers, they discussed how they might improve certain design aspects of what they saw.
Those ideas, coupled with a lack of satisfaction in the offerings of Syracuse’s baked goods scene, led the women to think about renting their own space and setting up shop at the market.
“So we marched our butts over to the office, and just went up there and asked questions. And it turns out it was kind of affordable. It’s easy. Let’s just try it. It’s not a big investment up front. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” Natalie recalled their thoughts. “But if it does, then great.”
The Sweet Praxis was created.
Getting WISE inspiration
The duo visited the farmers market office in March, and had only a few months to get The Sweet Taste of Success By Lorna Oppedisano their new business venture in order by May. They created a brand and logo, and decided on two items to start with — macarons and cupcakes.
In April, Jennifer had an urge to go to a local women’s entrepreneurship event she’d seen advertised on a flyer —the WISE Symposium.
“It was really transformative for me,” Jennifer said, “because I’d never been around that many empowered women who just have this creative passion, and are so proud of what they do, and are eager to share their knowledge with each other.”
She hadn’t yet met Joanne Lenweaver, the director of the WISE Women’s Business Center, but remembers seeing her speak at the event. The day reassured Jennifer that she and Natalie were on the right track. “I left feeling like, ‘Oh my god, we can do this,’” Jennifer remembered.
“I was like, ‘People do this kind of thing all the time. And we know what we want. We just have to get it done.’”
It’s macaron, not macaroon
At the time of The Sweet Praxis booth’s market debut, “there was nothing gourmet [in the area],” Jennifer said, referring to other dessert offerings. “There was nothing made with a focus on high-quality products or high-quality ingredients.”
Using local and organic ingredients was a priority for the women, along with offering options for people with dietary restrictions or allergies.
Syracuse lags a few years behind larger cities in terms of food trends, Natalie explained, so when The Sweet Praxis introduced its small, disc-shaped macarons, it was many people’s first encounter with the French cookie.
“People would ask, ‘Are those soaps? Are these for our dogs? What is this? $1.25 each? What? It’s so expensive,’” Jennifer remembered.
The women began explaining to customers the story behind the macaron — what they are, how they’re made and how they’re different from the American, double-O’d macaroon.
As time went on, they experimented with different flavors, often getting specialty ingredients from neighboring booths at the farmers market and creating long-lasting partnerships with local honey producers, lavender farmers and more.
Within the first month at the market, the duo tucked a couple important milestones into their aprons.
A friend suggested they approach local coffee shop, Café Kubal. One day, after packing up at the market, they packaged up some macarons, drove to the cafe, and said, “Here’s our stuff. Try it.”
Café Kubal owner Matt Godard visited their booth at the market soon after.
“I tried it. I really like it,” he told them. “When can you start?”
Not having planned for this step forward in the business, the women researched wholesale pricing.
“It pushed us in another direction,” Natalie said. “How do we do wholesale? How do we get it to them?”
The Sweet Praxis goodies could also be found at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op and Roji Tea Lounge’s pop-up cafe location, Montage, at Redhouse Arts Center. Offering their products at more locations than the market helped the women get more exposure and brand recognition, Natalie explained.
Also within that first month, The Sweet Praxis was commissioned for its first catering order. Again, an impromptu conversation led to spontaneous evolution.
An engaged couple stopped by the market to ask about ordering macarons for their upcoming wedding. Natalie and Jennifer hadn’t planned on offering their products in bulk, but when asked, they thought, “A wedding! This is very exciting.”
The Sweet Praxis had successfully branched out to catering and wholesale orders, all within their first month in business.
The couple who placed that first order has been loyal ever since. The business owners have developed friendships with many repeat clients as their venture has grown.
People usually get desserts to accompany indulgence and celebration, Jennifer pointed out, adding she and Natalie love when customers include The Sweet Praxis in their festivities. Their baked goods have seen people from first dates to bridal showers to marriages to anniversaries to baby showers.
“It was really fun for us to see people come back,” Natalie said. “You get to see their lives change and grow.”
During those first few years, Natalie and Jennifer worked the market most weekends, while also establishing and expanding their brand and offerings through festivals and events.
Different occasions would prompt them to perhaps offer a breakfast item, like scones or quiche. Or they would be inspired by a certain ingredient, and research new interesting flavor combinations. They also looked at basic, approachable, familiar foods, and thought about how to reinvent them with The Sweet Praxis twist — an “elevated approach,” Jennifer explained.
“We still were traveling and visiting other cities, and making pilgrimages all over,” Natalie said.
“We would travel to a city,” Jennifer remembered, “and then spend the entire time going from place to place eating.”
“Eating and walking,” Natalie added with a smile.
Jennifer finished the reminiscent thought. “Getting inspired by all the places that were innovative,” she said.
Throughout the whole process, they both kept their full-time jobs. In the back of their minds though, they wondered if one day The Sweet Praxis might be a brick-and-mortar storefront.
“We’re designers, so we’re trained to think in concept form,” Jennifer said. “So I think for us, we’re like, ‘What’s the big vision?’”
Finding a home
After the third season of the market, Jennifer and Natalie decided it was time to step back from their initial platform. With the events and festivals they were booking, it just wasn’t worth it anymore.
A few years ago, the duo casually began looking at vacant downtown storefronts. Natalie’s husband was interested in the urban area, and would occasionally point out a space that might be a good fit.
Since both women had full-time careers, they just kept perusing, agreeing if they were to find the perfect place, they’d try to make it work.
During that time, they even looked at 203 E. Water St., where they eventually set up shop. The building had been recently purchased, and the owners were leasing the space as it was. Jennifer and Natalie considered it, but without any changes made to the infrastructure, it wouldn’t work for a bakery.
They continued their search.
Then, in late 2015, a contractor reached out to them. Were they still interested in 203 E. Water St.? The spot hadn’t been rented, and the owner was open to construction.
Jennifer and Natalie thought about it and came to a conclusion.
“It became, ‘OK, let’s try,’” Jennifer said. “We won’t know if this is a good fit unless we do a design for it, and we figure out a cost estimate, and we figure out how much — like do the business plan.”
They already had a rough business plan written from their time working with LoFo’s Abigail Henson at the South Side Innovation Center.
So they got to work updating the plan, and picked the brains of industry friends and colleagues they’d met over the years. What might their operating costs be? How should they approach staffing?
Since Jennifer’s first visit to the WISE Symposium, she and Natalie had gone back a handful of times, and developed a friendship with Joanne Lenweaver. Now that they were advancing their business, they visited the WISE Women’s Business Center for advice. Joanne gave them good insight, the women remembered.
“She’d give us homework,” Jennifer said with a chuckle. “Things to think about, planning-wise, to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Putting plans into action
In February 2016, Natalie and Jennifer signed the lease, and got approved for an SBA-backed loan in April. Demolition started in May, and then in June came the fun part — construction of their dream.
“We’d been talking about how it would look for years,” Jennifer said. “Like, if we did this, it should be white and modern and European. Clean, like everything looks like a jewelry case. Not pretentious, but elegant.”
Natalie recalled the process.
“We just started sketching,” she said. “Even before we were getting into details about ‘Is this feasible?’ we were sketching. We probably spent proportionally way more time on that than anything else, because that’s where our brains go.”
With a lot of the menu having been developed over the years, Jennifer and Natalie focused on details like coat hooks and how the bathrooms would look, they said with a laugh.
Of course, some details needed to be redesigned during construction. The original timeline had the first day of business slated for August, but they ended up opening in November, which worked in their favor.
Memorial Day weekend of last year, both women left their full-time jobs to focus on The Sweet Praxis. They had three months to hire staff, finish work in the new space, order equipment and establish relationships with food vendors and distributors.
“And it turned out to be six months, so it was really lucky that we had that time, because it was way too much work for three months,” Jennifer said.
The experience of hiring and working with employees was one of the most challenging aspects of this next step, the women agreed. When you realize you’re responsible for someone else’s livelihood, it becomes real, Natalie said, adding that while it’s a lot of weight, it’s certainly a great asset that will help them grow.
As the menu of sweet and savory baked goods continues to grow and evolve, Jennifer and Natalie want The Sweet Praxis crew to be a team, collaborating creatively and collectively.
“It was really important to us to find people who are also passionate about food and about similar types of food,” Jennifer said, “and are passionate about the food culture in Syracuse and being part of something that’s continually growing.”
A sweet future
Now that The Sweet Praxis has been open for just about half a year, the bakery’s business has been going well, Jennifer and Natalie said. Their monthly Saturday afternoon teas have been well-received, and the duo is thinking about organizing children’s cupcake- and cookie-decorating workshops, as well as adult baking classes, in the future.
“We want to do fun experiences that can bring either families or couples or different groups,” Jennifer said, “that play off the bakery theme, but are more of an experience, rather than just a transaction.”
They’d also like to eventually bring in guest speakers to lecture on local food culture. Jennifer explained that they’d like to bridge the gap between food producer and consumer, “to be able to invite people in who are not only experts, but passionate about what they do in this community.”
The duo has even toyed with the idea of producing some sort of book in the future, complete with recipes and stories of inspiration from local food producers. For now, they’re still focusing on their new location. Like many other small business owners, they continue to work 14- to 15-hour days.
“And I hear that’s normal,” Jennifer said with a smile.
The Sweet Praxis owners, business partners and friends, laughed.
“We just have so much invested — emotionally, financially, just so much, in this place,” Natalie said. “We’re never going to stop.” SWM